Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Inside Nature's Giants - The Dinosaur Bird

Last night Channel 4 in the UK aired the latest in the superb Inside Nature's Giants series, and at last dinosaurs got a look-in. Specifically, the programme's regular team (plus a few guests) examined the southern cassowary Casuarius casuarius (photo below by Paul IJsendoorn, via Flickr).


As the title might suggest, much was made of the cassowary's similarities with nonavian theropod dinosaurs, including its legs, feet, and respiratory system, all of which were directly compared with the allosauroid Australovenator. Readers of this blog will already be familiar with how birdlike even the quite distantly related allosauroids were, but seeing the near-identical (in all but size) bones side-by-side was a truly striking demonstration. Scott Hucknull, who was one of the authors of the paper describing Australovenator, explicitly referred to the cassowary as "a dinosaur", which was very refreshing to hear on TV.

Richard Dawkins (for it is he) also made his regular appearance and he, too, took delight in pointing out that while dinosaurs are "proverbially extinct", the truth is that they "flourish today" as birds. It was wonderful to finally hear this being said in the context of a popular science programme. There was also a little on the evolution of feathers and the reasons behind the cassowary's neoflightlessness.

As an enthusiastic amateur (or 'nerd' if you prefer), the only facepalm moment for me came when it was explicitly stated that Archaeopteryx was the ancestor of all of today's birds, and that it was a "missing link". Given the excellent standard of the rest of the programme, it seems a bit of a shame that they made this cock-up and perpetuated the 'missing link' myth.

Still, for a proper verdict you'll be wanting to hear from people who are, you know, qualified. Fortunately, Darren Naish has promised a review over at his Tetrapod Zoology blog, so keep your eyes peeled for that. UK readers can also still watch the show over at 4OD, and I highly recommend you do!

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